Super 8 is one of the few movies I was genuinely excited to see this summer, and for the most part, it lived up to the hype. It's a consummate summer movie if there ever was one: it's got action, romance, aliens, explosions, and even takes place during summer. It's not a groundbreaking or exceptional movie by any means, but I felt fully engaged with it and enchanted by it while I watched, comforted by the familiar rhythm of cliché parent-child relationships and minor character comic relief, and viscerally thrilled by the reptilian pleasure of watching stuff blow up.
The movie follows Joe (Joel Courtney, a twelve-year-old Patrick Fugit doppelganger, with a little button nose and Bieber hair), a tween living in small-town America in 1979, before the word "tween" existed. His mother recently died in a steel mill accident; his father is a distant, macho law enforcement officer who is too much of a he-man to know how to express love for his only child. Joel spends his days and nights painting model trains, doing monster makeup for his friend Charles' (Riley Griffiths) super 8 short films and constantly carrying around a Significant Object (a locket necklace with a portrait inside, natch) in remembrance of his mother. While shooting at a train station one night with Alice (Elle Fanning), Joe and friends witness a mysterious train wreck that triggers a government cover-up and threatens the town.
It's a by-the-numbers blockbuster, but one with a key element that's missing from most of the big-budget bloatfests crowding each other for space on the marquee every summer: heart. Heart is hard to manufacture, harder to define and subjective to boot; I say heart, you say embarrassingly sentimental emotional manipulation. Most of the explosions and dramatic action take place in the second half of the film, but I preferred the first half, which which devotes most of its attention to the kids and their world, sans adults. The kids are entertaining and sympathetic; their problems and conflicts feel real. This is the part of the movie that has heart. It's reminiscent of Stand By Me or The Goonies, especially because it's set in the still-recent past. All these movies are about children but made for an audience that includes adults, and are about young boys working together to go on that ol' hero's journey and eventually attain some kind of maturity. These are movies that could all appropriately be titled, as Spielberg's E.T. was code-titled during its production, A Boy's Life. I can't think of any analogous movies about girls because young girls, in general, don't do things in movies. They certainly don't have the supportive, creative groups of friends or sense of companionship that Boy's Life movies do. I can't accept movies about Boy's Lives as reflective of girls' lives, because they're not.
Of course, developing characters is an artistic choice, and I don't want to criticize Super 8 or other Boy's Life movies for being about boys instead of girls. What should come under criticism, however, is a film industry that doesn't believe that a movie (especially a summer movie) with more than one token female lead, if that, can be popular or profitable. Super 8 is no exception in that category. The four female characters in the film are [major spoilers]:
- Elizabeth Lamb (Catrina Balfe), Joe's mom, an untouchable, immaculate beautiful angel martyr. The movie opens with her tragic death in a steel mill accident and she is seen only in old home movies, smiling beatifically and caressing baby Joel like a danged Madonna. The amount of sheer gall needed to create such a blatantly idealized character and expect audiences to find her convincing or emotionally affecting is kind of staggering. The emotional pull of her death feels false, like a shoved-in plot device, because it is. Weirdly, there is a scene in the film where Charles explains to Joe that they need to insert a female character into their script halfway through production of their homemade zombie flick in order to make the male hero's conflict more emotionally hard-hitting, a technique he learned from a Super 8 Filmmaker magazine. It's pretty meta.
- Alice (Elle Fanning), a capable and talented girl who nevertheless serves primarily as a romantic interest for Joe. Her mother is AWOL; she ran off, presumably sick of living with Alice's father, the town drunk. Alice befriends the boys' club but eventually gets carried off, Fay Wray-like, by the alien before the majority of the action starts, and lays comatose in his lair until Joe rescues her. Derp.
- Mrs. Kaznyk (Jessica Tuck), Charles's mother, a minor character who provides maternal support by repeatedly expressing concerns about Joe and Charles but also has to take care of a large family, so ultimately is stretched too thin to provide any kind of significant help or supervision.
- Jen (AJ Michalka), Charles's sister, another minor character. A superficial teenager interested in parties and boys and, uh, girl stuff. Her biggest action is using her sexuality as a bargaining tool to help her brother and his friends out.
At times Super 8 feels like a mashup of Steven Spielberg hits: you've got the basically unsupervised kids who have to fend for themselves (E.T., Jurassic Park), an alien who is being hunted obsessively by one guy (Jaws) and the government (E.T.), wreaks havoc and eats people (War of the Worlds) but really just needs a little kindness and is trying to get home (E.T. again). These kids live in a world with virtually no mothers and emotionally distant fathers and yet at the end, Joe and Alice must quite literally let go of their attachment to their mothers (via the Significant Object, SYMBOLISM) and embrace their fathers, who rejected, ignored and generally failed to shiv a git about their kids until the moment they straight-up ran away. No. You don't get the #1 Dad mug for that. The kids made their own way and figured things out in a world without their parents, but at the end we're supposed to act like the parents still matter. This conflict is, I think, where the heart is supposed to come from, but it feels empty.
Again, Super 8 was not a bad movie. I can certainly think of worse ways to spend a summer evening (*cough* Bad Teacher *cough*). It's just frustrating to be given such a fun, gold-tinted, mostly satisfying summer movie that doesn't provide any appealing place for girls.